Lawrence v. Texas: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Decriminalizing Sexual Conduct Between Same-Sex Partners

a couple touches hands in front of a rainbow flag

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In Lawrence v. Texas (2003) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Texas law prohibiting same-sex couples from engaging in sexual activity, even in the home, was unconstitutional. The case overturned Bowers v. Hardwick, a case in which the Court had upheld an anti-sodomy law in Georgia a few decades prior.

Fast Facts: Lawrence v. Texas

  • Case Argued: March 25, 2003
  • Decision Issued: June 25, 2003
  • Petitioner: John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, two men convicted for violating a Texas law prohibiting same-sex sexual conduct
  • Respondent: Charles A. Rosenthal Jr., Harris County District Attorney, argued the case on behalf of Texas
  • Key Questions: Did Texas violate the Fourteenth Amendment when it enacted a law that singled out same-sex couples and criminalized sexual activity between partners?
  • Majority: Justices Stevens, O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
  • Dissenting: Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas
  • Ruling: A state cannot create a law that criminalizes intimate behavior between consenting adults within the confines of their home

Facts of the Case

In 1998, four deputy sheriffs from Harris County, Texas, responded to reports that someone had been waving a gun around in a Houston apartment. They loudly identified themselves and entered the apartment. The reports of what they found inside conflict. However, two men, Tyron Garner and John Lawrence, were arrested, held overnight, charged, and convicted for violating Texas penal code section 21.06(a), also known as the “Homosexual Conduct” law. It read, "A person commits an offense if he engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex." The statute defined “deviate sexual intercourse” as oral or anal sex.

Lawrence and Garner exercised their right to a new trial in Harris County Criminal Court. They fought the charges and conviction on the basis that the law itself violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court rejected their arguments. Garner and Lawrence were each fined $200 and had to pay $141 in assessed court fees.

The Court of Appeals for the Texas Fourteenth District considered the constitutional arguments, but affirmed the convictions. They relied heavily on Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld an anti-sodomy law in Georgia. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Lawrence v. Texas, to once again address the legality of laws aimed at prohibiting same-sex conduct.

Constitutional Questions

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to answer three questions:

  1. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that every individual receives equal treatment under law in comparable situations. Does Texas’ law violate equal protection by singling out homosexual couples?
  2. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the government from infringing on fundamental rights like life, liberty, and property without due process of law. Did Texas violate due process interests, including liberty and privacy, when it enacted a law criminalizing certain sexual acts within the privacy of someone’s home?
  3. Should the Supreme Court overrule Bowers v. Hardwick?

Arguments

Lawrence and Garner argued that Texas’ law was an unconstitutional invasion of the private lives of its citizens. Liberty and privacy are fundamental rights, upheld within the text and spirit of the constitution, the attorneys argued in their brief. Texas' law violated those rights because it criminalized certain sexual activities only when practiced by a same-sex couple. Its “discriminatory focus sends the message that gay people are second-class citizens and lawbreakers, leading to ripples of discrimination throughout society,” the attorneys wrote. 

The State of Texas argued that it was common for states to regulate extra-marital sexual conduct. The homosexual conduct law was a logical successor to Texas’ longstanding anti-sodomy law, the attorneys explained in their brief. The U.S. Constitution does not recognize sexual conduct, outside of marriage, as a fundamental liberty, and the state has an important government interest in upholding public morality and promoting family values.

Majority Opinion

Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the 6-3 decision. The Supreme Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick and upheld consenting, sexual conduct between adults as part of a constitutional right to liberty. Justice Kennedy wrote that the Court in Bowers had overstated the historical grounds it relied on. Historically, state legislatures had not designed anti-sodomy laws to target same-sex couples. Instead, these laws had been designed to discourage “nonprocreative sexual activity.” “It was not until the 1970s that any State singled out same-sex relations for criminal prosecution, and only nine States have done so,” Justice Kennedy wrote. States that still have anti-sodomy laws as part of their criminal code rarely enforce them as long as consenting adults are engaging in sexual acts in private, Justice Kennedy added.

Texas’ law has far-reaching consequences, Justice Kennedy wrote. It serves as “an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in the private spheres.”

Justice Kennedy noted that stare decisis, the Supreme Court’s practice of respecting prior decisions, was not absolute. Bowers v. Hardwick contradicted more recent decisions from the Court including Griswold v. Connecticut, Eisenstadt v. Baird, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Roe v. Wade, and Romer v. Evans. In each of those cases, the Court struck down government intrusions upon important life decisions like child-rearing, abortion, and contraception. The Supreme Court acknowledged that an individual's liberty is at stake when the government attempts to regulate decisions that are sexual and intimate in nature. Bowers v. Hardwick had failed to understand that laws prohibiting homosexual activity aim to govern private human conduct and sexual behavior in the most private place, the home.

Justice Kennedy wrote:

“The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government.”

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Scalia dissented, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas. Justice Scalia condemned the Court's decision. In overturning Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Court had created a "massive disruption to social order." The majority had ignored stability, certainty, and consistency when it overturned. According to the dissenting opinion, Bowers had validated state laws based on morality. In overturning the 1986 decision, the Supreme Court called into question laws against, "bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity," Justice Scalia wrote.

Impact

Lawrence v. Texas struck down a number of laws that prohibited sexual conduct between same-sex couples. Lawrence encouraged states to reassess laws criminalizing other forms of sexual conduct. Under Lawrence, states must be able to provide evidence that specific sexual acts are harmful, beyond typical arguments for morality and family values. The decision in Lawrence v. Texas has been referred to as a "watershed moment" and was of "critical importance" to the gay rights movement. It was one of many cases referenced in the Supreme Court's decision, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) in which the court ruled that marriage is a fundamental right.

Sources

  • Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).
  • Oshinsky, David. “Strange Justice: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas, by Dale Carpenter.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Mar. 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/books/review/the-story-of-lawrence-v-texas-by-dale-carpenter.html.
  • Davidson, Jon W. “From Sex to Marriage: How Lawrence v. Texas Set the Stage for the Cases Against DOMA and Prop 8.” Lambda Legal, https://www.lambdalegal.org/blog/from-sex-to-marriage-davidson.
  • “History of Sodomy Laws and the Strategy That Led Up to Today's Decision.” American Civil Liberties Union, https://www.aclu.org/other/history-sodomy-laws-and-strategy-led-todays-decision?redirect=lgbt-rights_hiv-aids/history-sodomy-laws-and-strategy-led-todays-decision.